23 August, 2007


Recently I have been writing about mysteries—but not solving them. Naturally, this is unsatisfying, as if I'd handed you a Fabergé egg glittering in its onyx and gold-plate cloisonné enamel, but without the clockwork trains inside—shell without yolk. Now I have another mystery for you—the last—and of a different calibre—one proffered me by Jonathan Goodwin, who asked my opinion on the matter. Five months ago. (I was flattered, but lazy. Thus it goes.) So to the best of my abilities, which is to say, not so far—


About nine years ago, soon after I had discovered the joys of the internet, I wrote a review of Finnegans Wake on amazon.com. (Five stars, of course.) Interestingly, this attracted all sorts of cranks. First I received an email from some group making waves for the 1999 Picador edition of B. S. Johnson’s experimental The Unfortunates, which delighted me, as I’d never heard of Johnson. Next I was contacted by a young Mexican writer living in China—I forget his name—and we struck up an intermittent correspondence for a year or two, exchanging and commenting upon each other’s ‘experimental’ teenage novel—both inspired by Joyce, but neither, I must confess, very inspired.

The third person to contact me styled himself ‘Latah Mugwump’, a moniker which, as I had just read Naked Lunch, posed little mystery to me. ‘Latah’ sent me an email claiming that every night, before he retired to bed, his thumb began to twitch uncontrollably. Deciding that this twitch was a message—it was never made clear from whom—my mysterious correspondent had tricked up some sort of machine to convert his twitches to electrical signals, which would then be ‘decoded’ into sentences in plain English. He resolved to send me the contents of these messages in nightly emails. I was now, apparently, on his list. As you might imagine, I was quite excited by this. What sublime and heavn’ly thoughts would his unconscious communicate to him and to me?

The first message came the following evening. It read,

Phinnegan serves a slice of pi at his wake.

Mr. Mugwump continued to send me emails, unanswered, for the next fortnight. Finally, he said, “They” were shutting him down. Apparently nobody else on the list would reply to him either, and “They” considered him a spammer. I wrote nothing—I was just a little scared. This was my first introduction to the world of internet nutnuts.


Internet nutnuts are not so different to regular nutnuts, as I was already aware at the time. On a brief stint of pointless work-experience for a pointless national newspaper, I had been offered, as a memento, an A4 envelope, previously intended by its recipients for the office wastepaper-basket, addressed to the Editor by some hapless loony, and containing inside various oddments fadged together in protest at Tony Blair and other evils. On the back of the packet were snippets of headlines: “Out with the old”, “The new way”, “arrival of new young master”, and finally, “A complete lack of Street cred”. Within were four sheets of paper. Here is an example:

Now, this bloke was a total amateur. If only he had been reading the Arizona Daily Wildcat for the past decade, he might have had some sense of the mediocrity of his own ambitions. For the ADW—the college newspaper of the University of Arizona (Tucson), arch-rival to Arizona State (Tempe), in whose environs I spent the last three years—harbours a secret. Every year since 1981, more than once a year, and almost always on May 1, the Wildcat has published a cryptic 'advertisement' from an unnamed source. These messages typically contain images, mathematical diagrams and formulae, quotations (literary, philosophical, religious, and commonly in the original language) and other fragments of text. Here's May 1, 1990:

Recently the ads have been a little simpler, eg. December 7, 2005:

These advertisements were noticed in 1995 by one Bryan Hance, and in 1997 he established a website to collect and analyse them. He referred to the affair as the May Day Mystery. There also exists now a MDM wiki. On Hance's site, the texts are arranged by date, with scanned images, and comments from various would-be exegetes, attempting to decode the individual piece and the overall pattern. For instance, the comments to the 1990 image provide translations and sources for the Biblical Greek and Latin, a gloss on 'Weavers Needle', a description of a circular slide rule, attempts at Biblecodesque wordcounting, references to particle physics and Lutheran theology, an identification of the musical passage, and so on and so on. These disjointed annotations remind me of nothing so much as the fragmentary insights heard around the table at a Finnegans Wake study group. One person notices that a word resembles the Irish for 'wind', another detects reference in the flow of a clause to a Victorian ballad, and another spots the letters H C E embedded in words running backwards through a line. But nobody has a damn clue why Joyce would have combined these elements (and many others) in the sentence—let alone what it all means. One thing is for sure: the comments on the MDM advertisements have become an integral part of the ongoing text as a whole.

The ads are allegedly produced by a secret society named the 'Orphanage', and it transpires that they are placed by a Tucson-based lawyer named Robert Truman Hungerford, who 'claims to be the legal counsel' for the society, and a middleman between them and the ADW. Many in fact suspect that Hungerford is solely responsible for the ads, and it seems plausible that he is also responsible for many of the comments on Hance's site, under various pseudonyms.

The question, then, is what the devil is the point of these things? Who is trying to communicate what to whom, and why?


In 2001 the Mystery surfaced on a Metafilter thread. One contributor named Costas remarked, 'I am sorry, but I cannot accept this as anything but a frat prank'. He suggests a list of alternative explanations, rejecting each in turn. It can't be a secret society, because a 'truly secret' society 'could use better means of communication'. These ads are too obviously 'a mystery'. Then there is the theory that the ads are placed by a bizarre society (the Orphanage) 'to recruit people smart enough to break the "code"'—but this is rejected because none of the messages have ever been cracked, which implies that they were never really meant to be cracked. (Similar arguments have been made about that enigma of enigmas, the Voynich manuscript.) The third alternative is that the whole thing is 'the work of a lone, disturbed individual'. However, assuming that the guy was at least twenty years old when he started posting the ads, he must now (in 2001) be at least forty, which is 'a long lifespan for someone disturbed enough to pursue this this maniacally'.

So, concludes Costas, the whole thing was perpetrated by an annual fraternity 'initation / treasure hunt' trying continually to outdo itself. It's not a bad theory, but the '40 years' argument is weak, and so I find the conclusion of "half-seraphim" more convincing:
I've looked at a few of these and they bear a great deal of resemblance in form, content, and structure to some disinfotainment projects that I have worked on myself. . . It doesn't take more than minor brilliance and a little dash of high weirdness to come up with stuff like this, especially if you grew up in an environment of mysticism and academia. And remember that when you're dealing with this kind of information, even semi-random samplings of quotations are likely to develop what seem like enticingly deliberate interconnectivity.
In 2004 the Mystery surfaced on another Metafilter thread. The comments now have little to add; however, one "mokujin" remarks, accurately—
People have pointed out that a great deal of money and time have been spent on producing these things and go on to suggest that this fact alone is some kind of proof that they are meaningful or that they refer to some real world group. I take issue with that. Plenty of obsessed people stand on street corners handing out pamphlets or shouting phrases that have meaning to them alone.
I have no doubt that these messages are the work of one man, or like good New Critics let us say one writer, one mind—let us call him Hungerford for the sake of argument, though I have little interest in formally identifying him. But my confidence in this assertion, I readily admit, says as much about me as about the texts. I am still a Romantic at heart. I still believe in Great Men, and I still think of genius as essentially degenerate, close to madness. In an interview Hungerford said, how seriously I do not know, 'It is in all likelihood that I am a disturbed, mentally ill person, and these writings are no doubt the ravings of a madman'. It is claimed by some that the texts are intended to fish for potential confederates—that their overall message is 'We communicate openly because the opposition is too stupid to catch us (alternatively, because appearing eccentric is a good way to be left alone). We welcome friends, but you have to prove yourself worthy.' Sort of an occult version of that famous recruitment ad for secretaries written in shorthand. But Costas' argument is sound: nobody has decoded the texts—and there would be much better methods for recruitment. I just can't believe that the ads have such a well-defined function. I'd prefer to read them as pure expressions of an aesthetic—similar to the cult Toynbee tiles, only much richer—with (perhaps) the vague aim of encouraging others, those fascinated by mysteries, and that's us, folks, to look up some of the references. Cue this rather touching comment on the 2001 Metafilter thread:
i have read just about everything on the site (low course load this semester), texts, correspondance, clues, etc. I have learned amazing amounts from this stuff. On more than one occasion i have spent the night in the library, crumpled printout in hand, prone on the floor between two towering bookcases poring over texts... just absorbing.
It's not a shameworthy response. When I read Foucault's Pendulum at the tender age of eighteen, it inspired me to quit my job, learn Hebrew and study alchemy, kabbalah and combinatorial logic. Needless to say, I soon veered in other directions. For one thing, the abjad is so bloody difficult!


But as any good Derridean, or any good Wimsattite, will tell you, intention doesn't count for shit these days. The meaning of texts is not dependent on what their creator had in mind—they speak for themselves. (And in this belief I am hardly a model Romantic.) So forget Hungerford, forget recruitment, forget suggestive pointers. What can we make of these scraps, and of their commentary? For the two are not clearly distinct.

The first thing that struck me, glancing at several in succession, was the focus on resurrection. May 1, 1990, above, contains the phrase ζωη εκ νεκρων, 'life from the dead', taken from Romans 11:15, which in its entirety reads 'For if the casting away of them [Gentiles, the chaff] be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?' The same Greek is reused in many other ads as well. On Feb 22, 1988, the commenter 'D. Thomasson' explains the apparently-innocuous figure '1143' (which isn't, in fact, really in the text) as a reference to John 11:43, about the resurrection of Lazarus, and the 'decoded' number 918 as a reference to Matthew 9:18, also about resurrection. Resurrection, anastasis, stands in here for general restoration and reconstitution. And so it connects to the repeated nods to the Reformation—Luther, Melanchthon—and to radical reformers like Cromwell, Thaddeus Stevens, Bacon ('There is no excellent beauty which does not have some strangeness in the proportions', quoted of course from Poe's Ligeia), Blake, Jonathan Edwards, etc. 'If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all', says Hamlet, over a cryptanalysis bibliography and a passage in Mon.

The true era of the May Day Mystery is the seventeenth century. Its heated apocalypticism and piecemeal obscurity has much in common with the occultist and polemical pamphlets that circled the radical factions of the English Civil War, or, for instance, the surreal, allusive, rebarbative verses of the 1662 collection Rump. Themes of reform, both Puritan and more leftfield, were almost obsessive in the period, and bore great fruit in pedagogical theory and scientific practice. Sermons and ephemeral publications were swollen with millenarian eschatology and resurrection-theology. In the Mystery, all this is filtered through a modernist cut-up aesthetic: BLAST and Pound's Cantos, reappropriated Burroughs and ransom letters. The quotes from the lyrics of popular songs remind me of the 'hey nonny nonny' filler in the old prophecy jingles. And the mathematical diagrams are just like the sleight-of-hand numerologies and arithmologies going back to Plato.

America is the epicentre of this sort of stuff now, the home of the lone voice crying in the wilderness. In 2000 I was on a road-trip through the Midwest, and just outside of Pratt, Kansas, we came across a field full of rusty metal junk-sculptures. They had been erected as an indictment of Bill Clinton, the lying, war-dodging, adultering liberal asshole, and other evils. Rows and rows of these effigies and similar objects, with short texts and legends in a slew of tongues, in a field, in the middle of not much anyplace, with the high wind whistling through. N stopped the car and we had a look around. As it happened, a man came pottering up to us on a tractor, and it turned out to be the artist himself. He gave me his card, but I don't know what happened to it. I wrote in my journal,
Just a wheeze, a quiet rust in the breeze,
the engine dust. And the odd glance from a passing car. Coward!
As if. . . deludedly empowered.
There was something so quiet about the whole affair. I did not take a picture. Quiet, too, are the annual rants of the Mystery, set in their cubbyhole in an obscure local college paper, smally taking part in ancient traditions, contributing, just a little; varieties of an experience, whether religious or not.


The city, despite itself, becomes, sometimes, a burden. All those signs, all those architectures! A profusion of babels. In the library, where the data lies in organised patterns, ready for systematic retrieval, there you feel free. Or else trapped. The Library resembles a brick prison, and its gates come to take on the aspect of bars. I sit and read and read, for hours if necessary, and then I yearn to run out and course over the streets of London, in the rain if necessary, looking perhaps for datestones.

Tomorrow I depart for the Welsh countryside, where I shall be, as they say, incommunicado, until Tuesday. There are no signs, no architectures, in the mountains. Without words and noise, I should have little interest in mystery, still less in history. I hope it will rain and lour glumly.

Update: Sometimes you just get lucky. Goodwin links, with his own magisterial exegesis of the texts, putting me to shame. Languagehat links. Aaron Haspel links (the Mystery 'makes Dr. Bronner's soap bottle and Dutch Schultz's last words look like models of lucidity'). John B. links, and very helpfully identifies the Kansas sculptures. Perhaps most surprisingly, Bryan Hance links. Cheers!


xensen said...

"Fadged"!I like that.

Sue said...

It won't rain, we had it all this week.

John B. said...

This post puts me in mind of the American Transcendentalists' fascination with the idea of the hieroglyph--especially the notion of Nature as being/containing hieroglyphs (and perhaps an extension as well of Jonathan Edwards' notion of the Book of Nature).
As for the Kansas sculptures you mention, the Mrs. and I saw them last year while making a quick day-trip out to Dodge City, and I blogged a little about (and linked to a website on) Mr. Liggett and his work here, in case you might be interested.

I've not visited here in quite a while--various things to tend to/get done, you know. It's good to be "back." Enjoy Wales.

Michael S. said...

The May Day Mystery reminds me of the Abbot Trithemius and his Steganographia. Book III of that work, long thought to be about the conjuration of angels or demons, is actually a complicated cryptogram. The first to come to this conclusion was a man named Wolfgang Heidel, who asserted it in his edition of the book, published by Zubrodt at Mainz in 1676. He left a solution in his own code, which no one deciphered at the time, and only in 1996 did Thomas Ernst of the University of Pittsburgh decipher both the cryptogram of Trithemius and Heidel's coded solution, proving that Heidel had indeed deciphered book III of the Steganographia.
Robert Hooke thought the "Enochian" language used by John Dee in his purported conjurations of angels was a similar cryptogram.

Gawain said...

Some mysteries are probably better left unsolved: for when one thinks about what the possible solutions to this mystery could be, one realizes that they would all be a disappointment.

Your friend with the twitching thumb has of course read somewhere about automatic writing. Yates (the Irish poet) wrote a book about it -- his wife communed with mystical forces by writing automatically. The solution to that mystery was also simple (though in this case not disappointing): his wife loved him and was in danger of losing him; so she invented a ruse to keep him mystified. It worked.

Why, it even works with me: I am in with her myself, I think.

Aaron Davies said...

Reminds me of MZD.

Anonymous said...

Et, alors?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Funny how many people find that this 'reminds' them of other things: Transcendentalism, Trithemius (I was thinking of that one too, but forgot to mention it--and didn't know about Heidel or Ernst, so thanks), Danielewski (whom I haven't read, incidentally, but know of).

John, I'm delighted to rediscover Liggett, as I had forgotten his name, so thanks for the info! (I secretly thought you might know about this one.)

Michael said...

I suppose the significant point about Trithemius, as shown by Heidel in his own encrypted solution and as finally deciphered by Ernst, is that the hidden messages in the Steganographia had nothing at all to do with the evocation of angels or demons or with anything "occult" at all, except in the original sense of being "hidden." Trithemius was accordingly reputed for centuries as the blackest of magicians, whereas what his work accomplished was closer to the patter of a stage magician - it served to misdirect the perceptions of his readers away from his real sleight of hand for centuries. If Hooke was right, this may also be true of Dee, and one may yet find such to be the case with all the "clues" of the MDM.

Becky said...

I never heard about this, in all my years in tucson and now at the payroll challenged ASU. trust you to find obscurity everywhere. hope all is jolly well in london!

Conrad H. Roth said...


London is wonderful, hope you are well too, despite the payroll challenges.